Tracy Griffin

tracy griffin

It was a joy speaking with Tracy Griffin, CEO of The Big Issue Foundation, who has had a 30+ year career raising millions of pounds for charity and helping the most vulnerable people in the world. Since Tracy was a child she has been interested in culture and people. Studying languages at University she later found herself in Berlin before the wall fell. She found the differences in East and West Berlin fascinating. Travelling and then working in Africa on a health programme in Burundi she started to cut her teeth in the world of corporate fundraising. Back in the UK she worked at Save the Children, NSPCC, Shelter and Scope with Trustee roles at Action for Children and now Jeans for Genes UK. It’s clear that social injustice and exclusion motivates Tracy and there is no doubt she is an inspirational leader.


What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?

Clouds From Both Sides by Julie Tullis.

It’s a brilliant book about a group of friends climbing K2, some of whom died. It’s great for several reasons; It captivates the human spirit and it’s resilience, it’s exciting, but also it explores the very difficult choices that people make in very difficult circumstances. Those choices include leaving people to die, or trying to carry them, risking everyone else and the risk of taking dangerous routes to achieve their goal. It can’t help but cause you to introspect and think about your own decision making.


What purchase of £100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)? (Brand and model, where you found it?) 

I bought my five month old puppy Flynn, a tiny light for his collar. Because he’s brown, when we go walking at night I can often lose sight of him. Now I can see this light darting about everywhere.


How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favourite failure” of yours?

 I could list millions of failures.

I think the ones that I have learned most from, relate to enduring change. Most of my career has been about transformation, and communication around change is key.

Early on I assumed that having one initial conversation with everyone, telling them about what’s happening was enough. But then, what would happen is people would forget bits and fill the vacuum with natural anxiety (change always causes some anxiety). Then, the grape vines would create situations that were not based on anything real.

What I learned from this was to keep talking to people through change, until it has really embedded. Most importantly, to work out who the influencers are in the grapevines (there are always a few people that have undue influence) because if they understand and are on-side, the correct message gets out to everyone.


If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it —metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions — what would it say and why? It could be a few words or a paragraph. (If helpful, it can be someone else’s quote: Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?)

Live generously and make it count.

My dad said to me when he was dying. It was something he embodied too. I try and live by that. 


What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? (Could be an investment of money, time, energy, etc.)

Investing time in people.

Taking time inside and outside of work to do that, to build trust and loyalty. Helping people to play to their strengths. To understand where people might be struggling, to understand their motivations and what doesn’t motivate them. Helping teams understand each other and how they’re feeling. That is much more powerful and uplifting than talking about tasks. 

I’m driven by making a difference and I love the teams I’ve been working with who are open, honest and fun. It has made it hard to leave roles. Sometimes I stay too long because the team has been just so good. 

In the sector there isn’t enough time and focus on how people do the job, coaching that rather than what they do. People have to learn from examples and role models.


What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?

My partner is utterly absurd. He randomly just does new things, like deciding to wear shorts for an entire year, or growing his beard in weird shapes having never had a beard before. I love him dearly, but it definitely has to be him.


In the last five years, what new belief, behaviour, or habit has most improved your life?

Work life balance, 100%. Taking time for me.

It was the lockdown and home working that made me realise its value. I had always commuted to London, always had a million things to do. I never really stopped until covid.

The difference I felt from not filling all of my time was amazing. More time for swimming, for walking, for just space and silence. Slowing down helped in terms of perspective and calmness in my head. The extra sleep has made a big difference too, a huge positive impact. I know at night process my thoughts and ideas, and come up with solutions in my sleep.

I never thought taking space and time out, or going for a walk was worthwhile but now I really understand the value of thinking time, I schedule it in. To facilitate it I also delegate more, which has the secondary benefit of being a great development tool (and the truth is other people can do many things better than me).


What advice would you give to a smart, driven student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?”

Don’t get carried away with focusing on your own personal achievements. Think as much about how you can help the team.


What frustrates you the most about your industry and the way companies are run in it?

Two things. I worry that charities sometimes lose focus on what they are trying to achieve. They focus on what is good for the brand. They should be empowering the community to be self-sufficient, driving impact and stepping out of the way (that’s true of good leaders too).

I also worry about the culture in organisations. The way that people are being treated and treat each other. I think it’s important to invest time and money in culture. Jeff Dodds the COO of Virgin Media lives and breathes this. He is true to his values, he constantly displays coaching behaviour, and you can see it in the teams he is responsible for, they  consistently support each other. It has been a privilege to work with him. Everyone needs to be more like Jeff.


In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to (distractions, invitations, etc.)? What new realisations and/or approaches helped? Any other tips?

This comes back to Jeff Dodds again. He taught me to understand that my decisions had to be checked against my strategy and to be laser focused on this.

Something may be a good idea in itself, but is it moving your strategy forward? If not, then don’t do it, don’t get distracted.


What does a balanced life look like to you? Has work or a project you have been focused on caused you to neglect other areas of your life? 

There is a mixture of things that are important to me and those that I prioritise changes over time. The key is to be proactive and choose what those priorities are, not lose perspective.


When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do? (If helpful: What questions do you ask yourself?)

I have some great friends in Copenhagen and it’s a refreshing change of environment to go and visit them.

Spa days and swimming also make a big difference.


What does leadership mean to you? 

It’s many things.

Being clear about, ‘the why?’

Deciding on the direction (which has to be distilled collaboratively).

It’s trust through personal and professional integrity. 

It is keeping the dialogue going.

It’s removing barriers so people can be successful. This means you really understand how the business works by getting close to operations. Listening to everyone and that results in bottom up leadership, that’s how you avoid putting barriers in place.

It’s holding the team accountable to the purpose.

It’s having and promoting fun.

It’s understanding the hopes and dreams of the team.

And it’s making decisions quickly, even if it’s sometimes the wrong one. 


Which people have most inspired you in your life and why? 

Jeff Dodds. I’ve mentioned him several times. He’s passionate, his thinking is laser focused and he cares about people. I basically want to be Jeff.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, I admire his courage and his integrity. He has managed to mobilise a country in terrifying circumstances. He could have left, but he stayed and chose to commit to doing what he believes is right. I really admire him.


What do the words principles and values mean to you?

They are how you live your life, who you are and what you stay true to. 

Just do what’s right. Be fair. Help people out when they’re struggling.


If you had a forum to speak to 50 leaders, what question would you pose to them, to get them thinking about and being better leaders? 

Would people work for you again? 

Are you setting your organisation up so it will get better when you leave?

Do you know where your value stops?


What one thing could you do that you aren’t doing now, that if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life?  What one thing in your business or professional life would bring similar results?

Do more exercise. I should swim more and go to the gym more. That and holding on to the space that I have in my life now. 

And be more Jeff! 😀


Have you ever engaged with self-help, mentoring or coaching? If so, how?

I’ve been very lucky in my career to have met many outstanding leaders who I now call upon as sounding boards for all sorts of different reasons when I meet challenges.

To name a few: Tim Hunter, Steven George, Fiona Duncan, Tim Longfoot. hThese relationships are like Goldust and my network is invaluable.

I tell my son, who’s entering work for the first time, to find a mentor, someone you can learn from. Throughout my career it served me well and I wouldn’t have had the career that I have without those mentors. They’ve inspired me, helped me and given me confidence.

To donate to the Big Issue Foundation visit their website.


Topic: 50 in 50